State Sen. Ron Rice, the chair of the Legislative Black Caucus and a main opponent of the state’s ill-fated marijuana legalization efforts, said he will not support any kind of budget for 2020 if lawmakers do not move ahead with a proposal to decriminalize marijuana.
“After two years of feigned concern from state leadership and legislators about unfair arrests and convictions for people with small amount offenses – mostly black and brown, mostly poor New Jerseyans – I refuse to excuse the charade,” Rice, D-28th District, said in a statement on Tuesday.
Lawmakers have to agree on a spending plan by the July 1 deadline.
Gov. Phil Murphy and legislative leaders have been at odds over a millionaire’s tax the governor is seeking, as well as cuts to public worker pensions and health care benefits being sought by Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-3rd District.
“As long as we have black and brown people in jail at a rate three times greater than whites who commit the same marijuana violations, I will not vote for a budget that asks my opinion on a millionaire’s tax or pensions for union workers,” Rice added.
Lawmakers sent Murphy a bill Monday that would set up an expungement process for low-level cannabis offenses, even without a bill to legalize marijuana. Murphy and legislative leadership are hesitant about the decriminalization proposal.
The measure – Assembly Bill 5325 – was pulled from a May Assembly voting list. It would decriminalize possession of up to two ounces of marijuana and replace it with a $50 fine.
A5325’s main sponsor, Assemblywoman Anette Quijano, D-20th District, maintained that the proposal is not a decriminalization bill, but rather, a “regrading” proposal.
But Murphy and Sweeney have been frosty at best about the measure.
“[Decriminalization] leaves business in the hands of the bad guys, we don’t make any money out of it, our kids are exposed,” Murphy said in May.
Sweeney, meanwhile, also argued that decriminalization could enhance the state’s cannabis black market since punishment for possession would essentially be reduced to the equivalent of a “traffic” ticket.
The two figures also pointed out that Attorney General Gurbir Grewal issued guidance to prosecutors last summer instructing them to use discretion on a “case-by-case” basis when determining whether to amend or dismiss cannabis-related offenses, or even bring charges in the first place.
Any decriminalization, should the state want to pursue it, could probably be better-done at the discretion of Grewal’s office, according to Sweeney.